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What is a “Digital Twin” and why it matters to manufacturing

February 20, 2018

A digital twin is a duplicate image of a physical object created by a steady stream of data flowing from embedded sensors in the object, thereby reflecting the real-time image of the object, or twin.

The data that flows from the physical object and the mirrored digital twin is called a digital thread. In some cases, the digital twin reflects the current state, plus the profile history.

The use of a digital twin is becoming increasing important in manufacturing. It makes interaction between machines and humans more understandable, helping users to visualize what is happening, take away key insights, and share impacts with others, enabling collaboration.

Survival of the Visually Fit

Humans typically rely on senses—particularly sight--to gather input and make decisions. Visual observation is often considered the most informative, providing the most data that can be consumed and interpreted for basic survival techniques, from colors that help us know when food is ripe to recognizing the faces of friends and family we trust, or looking for oncoming traffic before we cross the street.

Visualization is just as critical for the survival of a manufacturing plant. Success-threatening dangers creep around the shop floor, from potential stock-outs to machine failure or bottlenecks in work flow. Remember the top office with a glass window overlooking the plant that was mainstay of the factory built in the early part of the century. In that era, progress could monitored by observing assemblings lines, products being completed and packaged.

Today it’s not so simple

Complexity has increased exponentially over the last decade as manufacturers have turned to innovation and technology for important ways to differentiate themselves from global competitors. Distinction between products can’t always be seen on the surface, and simply watching the assembly line provides no insights about the high-tech components or Engineer-to-Order design. The magic that makes manufacturing profitable today can’t be detected by color, shape or inventory numbers. Technology is often invisible. So, how do we observe if it is working?

Enter the new tool

The concept of the digital twin solves many of the manufacturer’s needs for observing and tracking what is happening on the shop floor at a granular, data level. Computerized systems feed data to shop-floor managers in the form of reports, analytics, and dashboards.

A digital twin provides distinct opportunities.

  1. Presents decision-makers with real time data in an exact visual replica. This includes data obtained from performance monitoring sensors which can detect, store and communicate a wide variety of conditional observations, from temperature to vibration or pressure.
  2. The digital twin can also increase efficiency of data-usage by removing non-critical information and processing basic information into a format that can be consumed by the shop floor personnel.
  3. This digital twin’s profile can be turned into a benchmark standard, the “ideal” which is used to identify future anomalies. The potential is staggering. Think of the benefits of knowing when a machine is on its way to failure—early enough in the process so intervention can happen.

Collaboration Counts

Another important benefit of the digital twin is its ability to enhance collaboration. When the data is put into a consumable format, such as a dashboard, several individuals—even in remote locations--can see, track and benchmark operations. No more delays and no more discrepancies of data, as each siloed team acts on its own data, sometimes seriously outdated.

The digital twin gives shop floor managers, product managers, designers, data scientists, and supply chain specialists critical data. Armed with insight about the performance of the machine and integration with systems, now the key designers can go back to the drawing board with some fresh insight and ideas. Teams can design better products and more efficient processes, as well as foresee problems/issues much earlier than before. The overall result is accelerated product design, more innovation and reduced time to market.

As the technology and best practices evolve, so, too, will benefits which can be realized. While manufacturing is in the early stages of applying this technology, the tangible Return on Investment (ROI) is already there. You simply need to look to the data. Look to the digital twin for answers.

Filed Under
  • ERP
  • Trends
  • Worldwide
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